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Rivera sick of wasting away: Periods of inactivity tough for catcher

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McClatchy Tribune
March 25, 2009
— Mike Rivera is a man, not a machine. That distinction didn’t prevent an inordinate amount of rust from building up last season, however.

Backup catchers usually start more than 13 games in a season. A lot more.


That was Rivera’s fate with the Milwaukee Brewers in 2008 as the backup to iron man Jason Kendall, whose 149 starts behind the plate were the most in the major leagues in 26 years. Rivera often went weeks at a time without seeing action, which tested him as much mentally as physically.


“It was a tough challenge,” he said. “It’s not the same as playing every other day, or whatever. You get mentally drained just thinking, ’When am I going to be in the lineup?’ ”


With the Brewers winning and Kendall having a nice year on defense, Rivera knew better than to complain. He never spoke out about being the Brewers’ version of the Maytag repairman, though he often felt like an outsider in the clubhouse.


“My teammates joked around about it but they also knew it was hard for me,” said Rivera, who caught the first six innings Monday in the Brewers’ 7-1 exhibition loss to Colorado. “I didn’t get offended. I told everybody, ’I just want to be part of the team.’


”Sometimes, I didn’t feel like part of the team.“


What made the inactivity tougher to take was that Rivera usually contributed when he did play. He batted .306 with five doubles, a home run and 14 RBI despite accumulating only 62 at-bats for the season.


Some days were better than others, such as an extra-inning victory over Washington set up by Rivera’s tying, three-run double on Aug. 10 at Miller Park.


”I heard ’Rock’ (Bill Schroeder) say on TV, ’Now you’re part of the team, Mike.’ That made me feel good,“ Rivera said.


”I just wanted to do something to help the team. Last year was a special year for the team. I just wanted to feel part of it and know I helped the team win.


“The guys were very supportive. They told me, ’Keep doing what you’re doing.’ ’Braunie’ (Ryan Braun) told me, ’I can’t believe it. You don’t play for two weeks, then you get two hits. You’re my hero.’ ‘’


It didn’t get any better down the stretch, with the Brewers battling for their first playoff berth since 1982. Kendall started the last 34 games, a streak begun under manager Ned Yost and completed under interim skipper Dale Sveum.


Kendall, 34, had a strong year throwing out runners (39.6%), leading the majors in would-be thieves nabbed (36). But Kendall also faded badly at the plate in September (.202 batting average), making Rivera wonder why he never got to don catching gear, other than warming up pitchers in the bullpen.


“I know Jason doesn’t like (sitting) but if you look at the numbers from last year I think he might have been a little tired toward the end of the year,” said Rivera, 32.


“He’s a competitive guy. He likes being out there. But at the same time it takes a lot out of you. We’re not getting any younger.”


Rivera, who managed only 15 at-bats after the all-star break, said Yost never warned him he would play so little. Rivera understood that pitchers loved throwing to Kendall but figured he’d get more opportunities to play.


Trying to stay ready took a lot of extra work.


“I hit extra every day,” Rivera said. “I watched a lot of video. I tried to catch a lot of bullpens and stay sharp. Basically, I just did everything extra to stay in baseball shape and not get rusty.


”(Yost) never told me the situation, how he was going to use me. That was the hard thing. If he had told me, I think I would have prepared myself better. It wouldn’t have been so hard on me.


“But I think I stayed pretty strong all year. I know my role is to be the backup catcher. I just didn’t know how small my playing time would be. I never saw it coming.”


Normally, at the end of a long season, catchers need time to recuperate, even those who fill the No. 2 role. To the contrary, Rivera found the need to play. He went to his native Puerto Rico to play winter ball and assure himself he could still handle semi-regular work.


In only 24 games with Santurce, Rivera accumulated 68 at-bats, more than he had over the entire season with the Brewers.


“I wanted to get in shape again and not lose the feeling of being behind the plate,” he said. “It was rough last year not being behind the plate very much.


”You have to be sharp with blocking balls and calling the games. Playing will make you better. I didn’t want to come to spring training just having caught those few games last year.“


Rivera’s ears perked up when he heard manager Ken Macha say this spring that he would like to assign his backup catcher to one pitcher in the rotation throug the season. That would assure Rivera of playing every fifth game and allow Kendall more rest.


Macha said he was leaning toward assigning Rivera to right-hander Dave Bush, the No. 5 starter in the rotation.


”That would be great,“ Rivera said. ”That will help me stay sharp. And that should help Jason, too. I feel ready for more playing time.


“ ’Bushie’ is a real student of the game. It would be nice to sit with him and talk over the hitters and what he wants to do. I know his pitches. I can tell what he’s doing when he’s struggling.”


Despite his frustration over long stretches of inactivity last year, Rivera said he “learned a lot” from Kendall and tried to pick his brain. More than anything, Rivera is proud of how he handled a difficult situation.


“You have to make fun of yourself at times,” he said. “Otherwise, you have a miserable year. There could be worse things happening to you. You’re playing a game you love to play. That’s the way I look at it.


”This is a great group of guys. I don’t want to be the bad apple. I want to be a good guy and do my job and be ready if they need me.“



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